Turks attack Kurdish rebels in north Iraq

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TURKISH forces have attacked into northern Iraq to back up a faltering two-week-old Iraqi Kurdish offensive against guerrillas of the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Much depends on the outcome of this war-within-a-war in northern Iraq, whose 3 million Kurdish people desperately need peace and aid before winter sets in. The fight against the PKK, the main Turkish Kurdish rebel group, was assumed by the Iraqi Kurdish leadership both to assert its own authority and to maintain good relations with Turkey, which controls its aid lifeline to the West.

An end to the PKK's attacks against Turkish army posts from northern Iraq is also vital if Ankara is to approve another extension of the mandate of allied warplanes protecting the Iraqi Kurds from Baghdad.

'Under cover of being Kurds and revolutionaries, they (the PKK) want to make us lose the historic chance of our people,' said the Iraqi Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani.

The Kurd-against-Kurd offensive has involved more than 3,000 Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas against a similar number of PKK fighters, but there have been few reliable reports of its progress. Kurdish leaders have refused to discuss casualties. Reporters in northern Iraq estimate that 20 to 30 Iraqi Kurds were killed, compared to 50 PKK dead. Turkish newspapers estimate 100 PKK members may have died.

'Our main purpose is to make them leave this place, not to annihilate or crush them,' said Fouad Masoum, Prime Minister of the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.

The PKK, which hit an arms jackpot in the chaos that engulfed northern Iraq after the Gulf war, and established several bases there, appears to have been pushed back to heavy defence lines within about 10km (6 miles) of the Iranian border.

'There is a serious Kurdish political resolve to get rid of the PKK. But the Iraqi Kurds want as little Kurdish blood on their hands as possible, to give them the opportunity to withdraw,' said one source in northern Iraq.

The Turkish military has made no statements about the exact mission of its troops and warplanes in the last three days, but the operation seemed a large- scale continuation of similar incursions for the past year. Turkey's Foreign Minister, Hikmet Cetin, told reporters that the troops were securing mountain access routes between 3km and 5km inside northern Iraq.

Western countries have given their full support to Turkey in its attempt to beat the 10,000-strong army of the PKK, which is labelled a terrorist organisation by most countries despite its claim to represent the national liberation struggle of Turkey's 12 million Kurds.

Timed to coincide with the start of the anti-PKK offensive was the Iraqi Kurdish leadership's 4 October unilateral declaration of a federal state - an idea likely to be followed up during an Iraqi opposition meeting in northern Iraq on Friday. Few doubt that the timing was intended to mute criticism from Turkey.